May 20th, 2020
Full disclosure: As discussed below, we have been educating philanthropists, families, and other funders in many settings and under many different sponsorships since 2000. Until now we have resisted suggestions to offer funder education courses or seminars directly through our Institute for Wise Philanthropy. For the first time, we are seriously contemplating offering limited-attendance on-line workshops. This post shares some of our thinking as we move ahead with our planning. To be clear: these webinar/workshops are not intended to supplant the superb funder education program at the University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which we are delighted to be connected. However, that program is restricted to principals, trustees, or chief professional decision makers of grantmakng institutions. For all other funders, please keep in touch and watch for our offerings.
Between zooming and cooking, there is still a lot of time to write and think these days. Thank you to so many of you who have commented both publicly and privately on my numerous posts on various media regarding funders’ roles now and in the “next normal” period. There are many more pressing issues at this moment in time than how one educates those who give money, but it is how I have spent a good chunk of my professional life over the last 20 years so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it has been on my mind during the last couple of months.
To remind readers who may not be familiar: Since the foundation I was heading closed in 2002, I have chosen to spend a good deal of time responding to requests to offer workshops and courses for families, philanthropists, and foundations in many places around the world. Some of those have been at NYU and UPenn, some for associations and what are now called Philanthropy Support Organizations, and some for individual funders and foundations.
When I first started doing this in a formal way, not wanting to develop a top down curriculum, I consulted with the organizations most prevalent in our field at the time: the Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations [now Exponent Philanthropy], the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and the Forum on Regional Grantmakers [now the United Philanthropy Forum.] The courses were then jointly conceptualized by what was then known as the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers [now PhilanthropyNY.]. I asked them all one simple question: “What should a funder know?”
There was so much alignment in their answers that it was relatively easy to create a curriculum based on consensus “core competencies” of grantmaking. As the world and our field have evolved over the years, the curriculum has been updated regularly, but the basic concepts and structure have remained viable and vital. I am proud to say that several thousand funders around the world have been direct beneficiaries of that model. Further, it significantly informed my own boutique “philanthropy advisory” model, and it is the underpinning of my quite extensive international speaking.
So much has been called into question over the last couple of months, it is forcing me to think about what philanthropy education for funders should look like in the “next normal.” Has this fine-tuned and well-tested curriculum become too dated for funders who have been rethinking strategies, changing ways of relating to their communities and grantees, accepting the overwhelming reality of the systemic disconnects and need for public advocacy, and even what it means for us to have independent and autonomous decision making about where our public benefit resources should be spent? Or, conversely, has all of this reinforced the value of such a structured, sequential, and carefully considered curriculum as a basis for knowing how to make the hard decisions with which we are all faced?
A lesser but no less challenging question is what the optimal viable medium for this kind of education should now be. 100% of what I have done until now has been predicated on “in-person.” The occasional webinars I have presented have all been for groups where everyone knew each other and had prior in-person experiences. Group learning among funders with an educator in the room, is very different than a group of pictures on a screen with an active chat button. Philanthropy education for funders, built around the core competencies mentioned above, has been most credible when a funder hears the questions other funders are asking, what challenges they face, how they respond to the same sets of questions. And what about confidentiality? Funders want to talk in safe, discreet, and confidential spaces. [see #3b below]. Have we developed sufficient confidence in newer media that this discretion can comfortably migrate – or would it, ipso facto, be one of the inevitable losses that would accrue to accepting fully on-line courses?
3. Educators and Students:
Moreover, given emerging issues identified by such initiatives as “Participatory Budgeting”, “Trust Based Philanthropy”, DEI practices, etc., not only must we examine the content of the curriculum but also both who should be imparting knowledge and who should be in the room.
a. Who should teach:
On the whole, our field has relied on funders to teach funders. To be sure, not every funder is a good educator – something that anyone who has attended sessions at philanthropy conferences can attest. However, a good educator who is a funder with multiple experiences has a much deeper internal data base to respond to the realities of other funders. As our field has become more diverse and the relevant experiences and values are expanded, it raises the expectations of what the content should be and the challenges of determining who should provide it. This issue is probably the easier of the two challenges to address. After all, over the years, we have readily added issues of equity in both our philanthro-ethics and in our strategy units. And there is a long history of inviting co-presenters with a variety of backgrounds and expertise to be co-educators, many of whom reflected much of the now-current diversity lens.
b. Who should be in the room:
The question of whom we should invite/permit into the funder education room is far more complicated. All of us on the funder side are well aware of being “walking dollar signs.” There are few places we can enter without being solicited. Over the years of teaching funders, I am consistently asked to guarantee that no one hoping to raise or manage funds will be there, and every philanthropy conference requires a similar commitment from all attendees and speakers. Sadly, that concern is not ill-founded; I have seen it abused when the participation rules have been loosened or when someone simply cannot resist the temptation to sell to wealthy funders. Yet if we are now talking about developing a new relationship between funders and nonprofits, if we take seriously the “nothing about us without us” mantra, if we believe that our advocacy requires a full mutuality, is the implication that we need to develop a new model that removes the divide and invites funders and the npo/ngo side of the sector together? Or would the funder community consider that a step too far? Is there a way to have separate education for funders precede subsequent joint learning?
4. Systemic Change.
The final question has to do with the centrality of systemic change as a new primary essential core competence. We have always underscored that understanding the interconnection between public policy and private philanthropy is a sine qua non for contextualizing where our field is and where it has come from. Once aware, we have felt, it would be hard to make a grant, any grant, without thinking about what its relationship to existing or preferred public policy. Is it better to support that local food pantry or support advocacy for increased SNAP funding? Or both? Is it better to fund that in-school arts project or to advocate for the restoration of those funds? Or both? You understand.
But COVID-19 has laid bare the scope of systemic dysfunction that leads to food insecurity, fiscal uncertainty, health-care vulnerability, the fragility of our cultural institutions, and yes, instability of our civil liberties and civil society. It is one thing to make sure that funders know of the legitimacy of advocacy funding; that is something we have taught all along. Perhaps, though, we must now say that any philanthropy education that doesn’t start with the centrality of our role in addressing systemic questions is insufficient and doesn’t fully acknowledge our unique role.
There are a lot of changes that await us as we delicately and thoughtfully move into a “next normal.” Those changes do and will touch every part of our lives. If there has ever been a time when our philanthropy work matters, it is now. It matters best when that work is informed by a deep and profound understanding of what our roles should be and how we can best play those roles. We have endorsed that mandate for a long time. Looking at the “next normal,” it would be irresponsible for those of us who are philanthropy educators to avoid the serious discussion about what a funder should know now.
Dear reader: Your thoughts and reactions will certainly inform both our continuing work and our new offerings going forward. I urge you to share them with us and your colleagues.
May 15th, 2020
This is our 12th article for funders, philanthropists, and foundations regarding COVID-19. As always, we welcome your thoughts and reactions to any and all.
Two decades ago, noblesse oblige was still the standard rationale for funders to be charitable and philanthropic. If asked why one gives, the answer was likely to be “to give back.” With riches come responsibilities.
The underpinning of that thinking is that there are those less fortunate who need something that a generous gift might provide. While most funders had opinions about which organizations or causes they cared most about, on the whole giving had a social context, in every sense of the word. Some of that social had to do with communal leadership responsibilities; some had to do with responding to peers’ requests. Most funders didn’t assume that they knew better than those who worked in the fields they funded about how best to use the money, only that the recipients certainly needed it.
Approximately two decades ago, a mostly healthy corrective began to supersede that rationale. For all sorts of reasons, the subjects of all too many books and articles that one can read on this subject, loyalty was summarily discounted as an imperative for supporting organizations, and measuring impact became the new value-added. After all, why continue to support a literacy initiative year after year if people still cannot read? Why do organizations dealing with homelessness warrant support if there are still so many homeless? The motivation for giving thus morphed from altruism to efficacy.
At first, there was denial from legacy institutions. Despite the growing anecdotal and statistical evidence to the contrary, those 20th century institutions convinced themselves that this was simply a temporary or transient aberration. When people got older, got married, got jobs, had kids, their giving patterns would revert to the past practices of their parents and grandparents. As time went on, as the change became more pervasive, it also became more persuasive, and many of those organizations had to pivot to find ways to catch up to the zeitgeist. Some did and some never did.
In the meantime, newer funding models emerged, all of which were based on some sort of measure of impact. There are a variety of models of those systems, often differing on what the true bottom line of effectiveness is, how far out a longitudinal perspective must look, which stakeholders or sectors have the greatest claim, how subjective the giving might allow or how comparatively demanding the objective claim, how “profit sector” they behaved, and more. Not only did funders not feel any assumed loyalty to organizations, but their giving was increasingly conditional. “We will fund this – IF you do that” or “We will fund that as long as you can demonstrate that our metrics are being met.” Not only did it reflect the changed motivation for giving, but it changed the way organizations had to deal with funders.
Implicit in all of these changes was a set of assumptions that have proven all too specious. It assumed that funders knew better than the experts what would work, how to do the work, and what constituencies deserved service. After all, funders made their money in the for-profit world; that alone, they believed, demonstrated that they must know more than those who are stuck in the non-profit world. [Need I say more?]
Over time this led to the institutionalization of attempts to develop standard ratios – such as “overhead” to program, or appropriate balance of sources of income, or cash reserves. Using these new metrics, some organizations began to rate nonprofits, and woe to one whose rating slipped. Eventually, though, most of the raters saw that they were imposing a very limited and limiting set of metrics to a very complex field. Did it really make sense to use the same rating system for a local food pantry as for a university? And if that food pantry were to have a mediocre rating but was the only one in a food desert neighborhood, would that be sufficient reason to discontinue funding it?
Thus, over the last few years, more sophisticated means of determining impact have been developed. [including, inter alia, the cutting-edge methodology developed by the UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which I have a part time connection.] These looked more deeply beyond simple-to-measure efficiency and to longer terms effectiveness as a means to decide where to put substantial funding. There is no doubt that our funding world was developing ever more useful way of making sure that our resources were used to bring about the changes we hoped for and in the ways that made the best use of our money.
Then COVID-19 hit.
And, suddenly we recognized that, for all of our sophistication, for all of our rigor, those non-profits on the ground doing the daily hard work were certainly better equipped to know where the immediate needs are, where the preferred interventions should be, how to spend precious dollars, and which skills are most applicable. Our field – or at least 700+ foundations and philanthropy support organizations – avowed [or perhaps acknowledged] that our reporting systems, our proposal systems, our laser focused funding approaches [and perhaps even our investment policies] were no match for the needs of the moment.
Maybe, we had strayed too far from the long standing, seemingly dated noblesse oblige rationale for giving. Maybe our demand for metrics, too often based on our categories, contingent on our priorities, reflecting our own systems overwhelmed the reason for philanthropy in the first place. Maybe, we are being reminded, that altruism is a social value, and that our own demands for systematic analysis everywhere along the line may be handcuffing those whose real job is to provide services to those in need.
Over 20 years ago, my first published article on philanthropy was entitled: “Hubris vs. Humility”. At that time I was the CEO of a major foundation, and I learned how easy it is for us to think we know everything, how fortunate we are to have the resources to try to make a difference, how seductive the power imbalance – and how arrogant so many of my colleagues appeared. [Of course, I never was. 😊] But I also recognized that, not only was that ethically problematic, but it was also pragmatically wrong. After all, it meant that grantees were less likely to be fully honest, that it allowed us to pretend that we are never wrong, and it allowed us to function in a self-referential bubble.
Over the last couple of decades, our field became so committed to the efficacy of impact and results that we often forgot about the nobility of “giving back.” COVID-19 seems to have forced a rebalancing. Perhaps a bit overdue.
Endnotes: I know my colleagues in the field quite well and can anticipate some rebuttals, so permit some addenda:
• Yes, funders sometimes do have perspectives or expertise their grantees lack. But even when a funder is more “right”, implementation should rarely be top down and requires a relationship that allows the “right” and the “real” to become aligned.
• Yes, of course there were always funders who wanted results – even in the days of noblesse oblige. But before the days of impact and metrics, the norm was more typically that funders gave, nfp/npo’s spent.
• Yes, due diligence and program evaluation is indispensable. But too often due diligence and the post program evaluations go way beyond gathering information that will truly inform our decisions. If we as funders don’t need the info, why impose extra work on grantees?
• Yes, there is great value in research as a basis for sophisticated decision making – but… One admittedly extreme contrary example: in an Advanced Grantmakers course I taught a few years ago, I invited a guest speaker who was considered the national expert on a particular then- hot initiative in the field. It turned out that the expert whose work was widely published, had never met with any foundation, never worked in a foundation, never spoke with any practitioners. I am sure that no one knew more about the research or the laws related to that initiative than the guest speaker. However, the “expert” was fully unable to answer a single question on its functional application from the room full of very experienced funders. Surely this is indeed an extreme example; it does, though, remind us that research that isn’t rooted in real experience is simply a contribution to general academic knowledge, but of questionable value to those who must make decisions on its basis.
• Yes, I agree that there are certain times when a restricted gift serves the grantee organization. 2 examples: when a non-profit wants to explore an initiative beyond its core budget; or, perhaps, when it is for a capital project. But in general the tendency of some funders to give only restricted gifts, to be unwilling to fund infrastructure of that same organization, to give for a year at a time, to give less than the amount necessary for the project to succeed, etc. typically handcuffs the recipient organization and limits the ability of that organization to bring the impact the funder claims to want. Our funding should enable the greatest likelihood of the success of a project. That doesn’t mean there should be no limits; it does mean that a funder must make sure the relationship with grantees is open, honest, and trusting. Given the power imbalance, that relationship only works if we as funders enable it to.
• Final point: Yes, it is true that I have been teaching and advising funders on how to make good decisions for a long time and hope to continue to do so. So, I don’t want to appear disingenuous in my statements about overreach in due diligence. My hope is that we as funders “right size” our processes and decision making – to make our own lives and the lives of those whom we empower with delivering services easier.
May 10th, 2020
This post is a continuation of a series of responses to COVID-19. It was first written mid-April, but wasn’t published until now. It continues some themes originally discussed in #365, published on 18 March, and #366, published on 22 March. Since I first wrote this, a number of colleagues have begun addressing philanthropy strategy from a variety of perspectives, some echoing what I wrote then and here, others who take quite alternative views. Hopefully, this will add to our field’s very robust discourse.
Before exploring this question further, let me associate myself with the broad range of foundations, philanthropy support organizations, and other funders who have committed ourselves to increasing payouts, smoothing processes, and being agile during this extraordinary time. It is the right thing to do at what is surely an unprecedented time – at least in scope. The pandemic has exposed the not so hidden but easily overlooked fragility of much of the volunteer sector, the deep-seated racial and class divides in American society, the price of government’s years of retreat from a commitment to the welfare and health of most Americans, and, en passant, the all too often inscrutable and byzantine ways in which our funding community works.
It has been right that we as a field have demonstrated an agility rarely seen before and played substantial roles in literally putting our money where our mouths are.
But that is not the same as throwing our strategies out the window. And it is here that I call for caution. A few key points:
1. History has taught us that we, as funders, need to keep some of our powder dry. After disasters, compassion giving is quite widespread. But disaster exhaustion follows close behind. It isn’t clear if COVID-19 will follow the pattern but there is certainly reason to feel it will. After all, people are stretched, foundations are reaching way beyond normal giving patterns, and the government is printing money. After this stage stabilizes, whatever that may mean, will funders feel that it is time to move on or catch up even as the long-term impact is still being felt?
2. Moreover, there is likely to be some sort of recession. Even if employment returns some of the millions to the workplace, most projections assume some permanent losses. And while the markets have shown more resilience than the general economy, a rapid upswing is unlikely and therefore there won’t be replacement funds for the beyond-typical spending of the moment.
3. No one can fully anticipate the full scope of residual or recovery needs. Will there be food shortages as some predict? Will there be a surge in needs for psychological care as some others predict? Will our education system discover that it is in disarray and needs sorely needed funds just to get back to its prior less-than-adequate place? Will the numbers of non-profit closures raise new and severe issues of basic services to the most at-risk communities? Will the forces of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia have become so emboldened that we have overt social disruptions? None of these scenarios is very farfetched, and each would require real attention from funders.
Therefore, it is imperative that funders, especially foundations, resist the urge to spend it all now. Even if this is the proverbial rainy day that we have been saving for, there will be clean up for a long while for which we need to be prepared.
Moreover, if we had done our strategy work well in the past, we should have strategies to guide us through these and any unplanned times. If we always did the same kind of funding to the same institutions, we wouldn’t need to devote too much time or energy or thought power to the “what-ifs” or to competing claims. [It is a legitimate if limiting funding approach.] For most of us, we need strategies because we must make choices among competing legitimate causes. And since one never knows when something unanticipated comes along, we need strategies that can inform our responses at those times as well. Therefore, every organizational strategy needs to leave room for flexibility of implementation. If a strategy doesn’t allow for an implementation that can respond to the unknowable, it is too stringent a strategy.
Now, there is a difference between pure compassion giving, i.e., simply responding to the emotion of the moment, and flexibility in one’s strategy which allows an adaptability consistent with established priorities, values, and an understanding of where one’s resources can be most effectively used. Agility is not the same as anarchy.
Foundations and independent funders have a unique and enviable combination of attributes that should inform an effective and appropriate strategy guiding our decisions: Because foundations and independent funders have no plebiscite, no election to prepare for, no funds to raise, we can exercise both the vantage of thoughtful perspective and the agility to apply them in careful and adaptive ways. No other institution can claim that level of autonomy and that combination.
Thus, I would argue that, even if a foundation chooses to spend more of its endowment, change its allocation process, and revise its own ground rules, or an independent funder chooses to alter our “normal” way of giving, that need not and should not mean that we must cast aside our carefully articulated and crafted strategy. This message has never been more important to underscore than now, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, when pressures are so great on all of us.
May 8th, 2020
This post is a continuation of thoughts on what we need to put in place as we rebuild our world. The pandemic has revealed or underscored so many systemic inequities and injustices that it is clear that we will have a lot of work to do, even if we didn’t have deniers, ideologues, and others who want nothing more than to return to some idealized – and never existing – past. Different posts have or will be dealing with many of those issues.
This one has to do with health care:
First a personal story. Going back 2 decades, a time came when I had increasing responsibilities for my elderly parents’ health care decisions. It wasn’t easy for many reasons. One was that they were private/secretive [chose one]. My brother and I were kept in the dark about their medical situations, their preferences, and more. This was particularly challenging when hard decisions had to be made for my father and we had no clue that there were documents specifying his preferences. There were medical interventions that went beyond his written preferences, but we never knew about them, and our mother either forgot or chose not to share them with us. It was only when we were called upon to help resolve his estate that we came upon the documents.
I am sure that this story, abbreviated to be sure, is familiar to many, but it is not the primary part of my narrative with real implications for public policy and medical practice.
The second part of the story does, and this has to do with my mother. After my father’s passing, she went from denial to dementia in rapid order. Our responsibilities grew including taking her to medical appointments. One of the pleasant surprises was to learn that all but one of her physicians were connected to the large University of Pennsylvania health system. And Penn had already instituted shared computerized information between all physicians in the system. Our mother had no clue what her ailments were, what medications she was taking, and more. Fortunately, at every medical appointment, each specialist could promptly identify all of these things. It was a difficult decade but made easier knowing that there was a level of coordinated care that we would simply have been unable to do on our own. [Since we had uncovered that her medical directive was identical to my father’s, when there were genuine end of life decisions to be made, it was very clear to us and to the medical team what to do and what not to do.]
To bring this personal story to a close, let me add my own experience much more recently. As many readers know, we moved from NYC to Washington DC 2 ½ years ago. Among the challenges of relocation is the identification of health care providers. In New York, I had the benefit of having the equivalent of a concierge doctor who coordinated my health care and I lived walking distance to numerous world class institutions. The quality of my care was a luxury, to be sure, but never in question. When moving, I hoped to find a world class health care system that would replicate the benefits of the coordination of information that Penn provided for my mother a decade and a half ago.
Since Johns Hopkins fit the bill as a world class health system, I decided to find specialists who were connected to them. Hopkins had developed a presence in DC, including 2 first rate hospitals and an entire network of affiliated physicians. Seemed like a perfect transition. And, indeed, I have found a number of first-rate specialists with that affiliation. But what I discovered was that, even there, the computer systems are not interconnected. Each department asks for its own information with its own software. While I suspect it is more interconnected for in-patient care [fortunately I haven’t had to find out], it was a bit disconcerting to see that this world class medical system hasn’t found a way for all of its related medical staff to access the same data bases. I am well aware that there are privacy issues – and I am not dismissing them. But privacy should apply to access and not to compatibility.
My own story is only indicative of the shocking and embarrassing gap that has become so glaring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even setting aside the corruption and dishonesty that regularly is spewed by White House officials, what we have seen is that this system that many pretentiously still consider the best is flawed, underprepared, overly dependent on competitive private sector resources, and implicitly exacerbates the inequitable access reflective of race and class divides. Why don’t we have accessible data bases? Why are there shortages of medicines and equipment? Why need there be competition among States, and between the States and the Federal government?
The pandemic has exposed the deepest flaw in the US healthcare system – that insurance should be connected to employment. Why? Why is the US the only major nation with this bizarre – and unjustifiable – approach? [Yes, I do know the history of how we got here, but watching millions of people lose their health care along with their jobs should convince even the most reluctant ideologue that the post WWII approach has become both unsustainable and immoral.]
At this point there should be no reasonable objection that the “next normal” includes health insurance for all. [I don’t care what it is called since any nomenclature has become partisan. I only care that it happens – and, I believe so should our public policy commitment.]
I began with my own dilemma with our flawed system. Let’s face it: my challenges are those of “privilege”. For too many millions, health care access is literally a life and death issue. If we are serious about the “next normal”, that must change.
April 30th, 2020
This post announces a new, fully gratis, offering to philanthropists and other funders.
Over the last 3 decades, the philanthropy world has been my professional home. I have had the honor of leading foundations, advising many funders from around the world, and teaching or speaking to many thousands more in 40 countries. As with so many of us in the philanthropy and foundation world, I feel that it is a crucial time to give back.
Many of us have increased our financial giving despite – or perhaps because of – the sharp economic decline.
This offer goes beyond that and builds on my expertise: I am now offering a FREE problem-solving session of up to 30 minutes to any funder who wishes [to the extent that my schedule permits, of course.] All you have to do is send a message to [email protected]
[The “fine print”: This is not intended to replace a full consultation that many philanthropy advisors offer; it is ONLY to coach through a specific problem. Also, I am not an attorney so I don’t offer legal advice – but I am happy to respond with best practice advice. Finally, I know virtually nothing about fundraising so please don’t schedule a time hoping that it will help identify funds for a project, investment, or organization.] #philanthropy
April 27th, 2020
Please see sections #3 and #6 for comments related to COVID-19. You may wish to read a number of our other posts for thoughts on philanthropy’s unique role at this time. I want to thank Lewis Flax, an expert on board performance and an NSA-DC colleague, for his constructive suggestions for this revision.
I recently accepted an invitation to join a board. That is hardly newsworthy or even report-worthy, except perhaps in a Chronicle of Philanthropy trivia page. After all, it is my 61st. [I only know that number because a couple of years ago, I was asked about my board experience over the years, so I reached back and did the arithmetic. I also calculated that I have chaired 12 of them. These boards have ranged from local to national to international, and included a wide variety of topics, styles, and roles.]
Clearly at this stage of my life and career, I don’t join boards for the purpose of résumé padding. In fact, I more often politely say no to such invitations than say yes. For example, I say yes to foundation and grantmaking boards [my field and expertise] and say no to those that are primarily looking for help in fundraising [which is most assuredly not my field or expertise]. I am more open to boards where it is clear that board members play appropriate governance roles and less open to those where one is expected to be a sycophant. And, unless I can see that my participation will actually be utilized and I’ll find it gratifying, there is no reason to say yes at all.
Boards are indispensable to the entire voluntary sector. Indeed, I considered that role so essential that, when I was the CEO of a large and multi-faceted non-profit, I strongly urged every professional of that organization to sit on a board of their choosing. My feeling was that there was a double benefit for that: not only did it help those many non-profits have their expertise, but it also made them better professionals. The experience honed their understand of how board members should best be treated, utilized, and empowered. [All of us, I know, have seen too many examples when board members don’t really know their roles, and professionals don’t either.] Underlying these expectations was the affirmation that we were all beneficiaries of the voluntary sector, and we should, therefore, model our commitment to it.
There has been no shortage of excellent material about the roles of board members and the indicators of successful boards. One very valuable source for that is BoardSource, and there are many more. So, I will take a pass at simply redacting or repeating what is otherwise available.
I do though want to comment on some of my learnings from my own experience, and to share a couple of very preliminary observations about the implications of our current reality.
1. Hard Questions: Board governance requires board members to be willing to ask hard questions, even at the risk of seeming unpopular. Permit a real-life example: In one of my own board experiences, something seemed wrong to me about the way the Conflict of Interest statement was written and being applied. I raised the issue in a board meeting when we were asked to fill out our COI forms. The CEO was adamant that I was wrong in my concern, and the rest of the board supported him. A year or so later, the CEO was dismissed for cause, and afterwards it was discovered why the CEO was so insistent: he had abused his role and never reported certain funding practices that would clearly have been prohibited had the COI been applied appropriately. It doesn’t give me pleasure to say “I told you so” but it does reinforce the importance of good governance. [We all can only imagine how much money nonprofits would have saved had board members asked harder and timely, though uncomfortable, questions about Madoff type investments?]
2. Appropriate Behaviors: Having said that, there is a difference between asking good governance questions and being “a pain in the butt” [not exactly a technical term]. Good board membership is not about micro-managing or assuming supervisory roles of various staff members. Staff of non-profits are not board servants, nor are they there to do board members’ private bidding. In my role as a funder and foundation trustee, and also as an educator of funders, I see how easy it is for power imbalance to creep into role misalignment. Most of the time it is not willful, but it is always unhelpful and counterproductive.
3. Meeting Attendance and Role: Historically, there has been a real difference between the activity of boards overseeing locally based organizations and of boards overseeing national or international organizations. A local board can have more functioning committees, meet more regularly, depend more on board voluntarism, and have a more direct relationship to the work. A board of a national or international body certainly cannot meet be expected to meet as regularly, nor to have the same level of direct connection with the daily work.
Another example from my experience: A member of a somewhat famous and even wealthier family had been encouraged to join one of the most prestigious boards in the world. By the time they came to me, they were frustrated and annoyed: this was an international board that gave only the broadest policy questions to the board; this family member would have much preferred, and would have been more gratified to sit on a less prestigious board where their involvement could have been both more robust and more textured. The board probably was acting consistently and coherently given the kind of organization; this particular board member simply should not have been on that kind of board.
Having said that, I wonder if the zoomification of meetings might begin to radically change the character of all organizational interactions, including board meetings. Currently, we are communicating with colleagues and fellow board members around the city, the country, and the world more easily than scheduling board meetings ever was in the past. Indeed, when the quarantine is over, most folks will have mastered the medium and may be reluctant to allocate the time or money to have as many in-person gatherings. It certainly has made attendance at the boards on which I sit, none of which is here in Washington, much easier and efficient. Not sure about all of this, but it seems quite likely that this is one of the changes that will become part of the next normal.
4. Term Limits: I have become a big believer in term limits. You might be surprised how many organizations don’t have them. Those organizations that don’t have them have a tendency for board members to age in place and become all too stuck in dated thinking. In one example I have written about some years ago, I was asked to keynote the annual gathering of the international board of a very prominent and respected non-profit. At the meeting, their top “young leadership” was honored. One of those honorees was a 50-year-old retiree; another was a 48-year-old mayor. I guess they weren’t old enough to sit at the grown-ups table, but more to the point, there was no space for them since there were no term limits.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that experience is irrelevant or that there is no wisdom that comes with longevity. I am, though, saying that a board that doesn’t structure its own rejuvenation is more likely to become stuck than one that has to include new thinking, has to explain itself anew, and integrate new members with experienced ones. 6 to 9 years in a board capacity is quite sufficient to make one’s thoughtful and meaningful contribution, and if one is that indispensable, it is always possible to start anew with a year’s sabbatical. To take another personal example: I was chairing an organization without term limits. After 6 years, I insisted that the organization find a successor. They tried to persuade me to stay until they found the “right” person – open ended.. My response was that they had a maximum of 6 months to do so. Sure enough, it motivated the leadership to identify both a successor and a succession plan. It has proven healthier for the organization and has made my continued involvement more viable.
5. Hard Decisions: Participation on foundations boards is quite different than serving on public charity boards. In the latter, in public charities, the fiscal stability and sustainability of the organization is a constant agendum. Even if one is on the board primarily because of one’s knowledge [Wisdom] and commitment [Work] and not one’s personal Wealth, underlying most decisions is a recognition of board responsibility for financial support.
Private foundation boards have a quite different starting point. Most private foundations are already funded, or the source of their funds is determined, so the primary board challenges are to choose how to use those funds responsibly, ethically, and wisely. [In prior essays, I have written about the issues of serving on a board if the family funder/founder is still in the room vs when it is a successor or independent board, a topic to which we can return on another occasion if readers wish. For this post, it is an ancillary question.]
Having sat on numerous boards of both types, I can attest that the character and balance of the board agenda are quite different. What is true of both, though, is that responsible board participation requires a willingness to make hard decisions. Pushing the hard questions down the road, an all too frequent tendency of reticent boards, ultimately is counterproductive and weakens the impact of the foundation or the NGO/NFP
6. Strategy and Implementation: Another essential role of board members is to set the strategic direction for an organization, and then endorse how that strategy can be implemented. Strategy without an implementation plan is simply abstract desiderata and implementation independent of a strategic overview is simply programs.
These distinctions are crucial to bear in mind at this COVID-19 moment in history since all bets are off for implementation plans for almost all non-profits and most foundations. For many non-profits, this is a time of existential challenge, so all that pre-planned programming is difficult at best. Human service organizations have more business than they can handle; arts and culture organizations have less. What we have seen in this past month is that the organizations with the greatest clarity of their strategic thinking have been able to pivot and adjust better than those that don’t. For better or worse, now that so much is happening virtually, the differences are pretty striking. We can observe organizations all over the world and we can see which have applied their thinking in coherent ways quickly and which ones haven’t. I am not commenting here on the relative quality of those responses – after all, there is a great disparity in accessible resources, but rather the evident quality of the underlying thinking.
Some have argued that foundations need to make immediate changes in their strategies in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t agree – what I do believe is that if they have to change their basic strategy it means that they didn’t have adequate strategy thinking built into how they operate. Implementation can be agile and if there ever was a time for agile implementation, it is now. But hopefully they are making those decisions consistent with their understanding of their role, their distinct positioning, and a grasp of their capacities. It is in this realm that a board earns its keep. Agility and long-term thoughtfulness must go hand in hand, and that requires both courage and stability in times of disaster or crisis.
The voluntary sector is essential and crucial in every country and every society around the world. The roles and expectations may vary from place to place given governments, cultural histories, and local practice. But each of the 6 board categories above make the difference between a well-run and sustainable nfp/ngo and a more vulnerable one. At this time in history when this sector is asked to play an outsized role with shrinking resources, effective boards and effective board members can and will make the difference to what our multi-faceted sector will look like at the other end of quarantine.
April 24th, 2020
Over the years, there have been both great advantages and great disadvantages to being an independent voice in the philanthro-eco-system.
After the foundation of which I was CEO closed in 2002, I made the choice to play an independent role as an educator, advisor, speaker, writer, and thinker about philanthropy. Having been an employee – albeit at a fairly high level – for the entirety of my professional life until that point, I decided to see what it would be like to be my own boss and to take full responsibility for my own words, involvements, and my own professional destiny. [for those readers who want to discuss the risks/rewards of that choice as they may apply to you, please be in touch directly – we can set up a time to chat.]
On the whole, that choice was a good one. I discovered that there were real opportunities to say and do things on both a professional and volunteer leadership level that might have required approval – or disapproval – in prior contexts. There were invitations to speak and teach in many places around the world that may not have been possible with executive or organizational obligations. And, perhaps most telling, I discovered that people were suddenly hearing my “voice” that, in the past, seems to have been hidden beneath a subconscious political sensitivity to the institutions in whose employ I was – even if I was the CEO.
There are also some significant disadvantages, though. In much of the philanthropy world, the question is “whom do you represent” determines which boards you sit on, which committees you are invited to, which task forces include you. While I surely have sat on many boards, committees and task forces, there were many more on which I might have wished to be a part that were addressing matters close to my heart and my expertise. And while I am not complaining about the depth of our own pockets, they are not deep enough to warrant others automatically making space as an independent player.
In the current COVID 19 context, this reality means that there are many statements, conversations, webinars, and conceptual considerations to which I am an outsider. When I – or our Institute for Wise Philanthropy – is invited, we eagerly participate, or sign on, or endorse, but rarely are we at the drafting table. I wish it were otherwise, but it does provide an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to take a broader view of what is happening now, what probably will happen, and what must not be allowed to happen to our field, and our nation as a whole.
I don’t know any more than any reader does about the sane and reasonable timeline for our current quarantine. I do know that it has exposed and underscored deep and abiding issues for all of us, philanthropists and philanthropoids included.
It has underscored that the human need for connection encourages creative uses of existing technology in ways that will surely change the way we do workplace and the way we do family – even when our in-person lives return. It has underscored that we do have control over our climate if we behave in ways that reduce pollution and the waste of natural resources, that public behavior matters – and that public policy matters more. [While I am sure deniers will continue to deny, the overwhelming evidence of cleaner skies over cities around the world is only one proof-text among many.] It has proven that the absence of a reasonable and equitable national health system is a death sentence for too many, and an injustice for all. It has proven, as if such proof were still necessary, that underlying and systemic racism – and other forms of xenophobic hatred such as anti-Asian-bias, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia are too close to the surface and too present in attitude, behavior, and impact. And it has proven that American claim of equal access and equal rights are all too hollow in the face of overwhelming evidence of a permanent underclass. [I am sure others can add to this list.]
This moment in time has also shown the vulnerability of organizations and institutions in stark and ominous ways. A society that chooses to rely on the voluntary sector to provide for essential human services, to address food insecurity, to enable much of our education system, and to care for our infirm and elderly suddenly finds that a voluntary sector can only do so much to provide palliatives to a deeply fragile system.
Lesson #1 What Must Change: We must not return to a normal which maintains systemic injustice. There are structural inequities, there are conceptual injustices, and there are entrenched bigotries that are destructive and simply wrong. There may be room for discussion about how to redress these systemic matters, but not whether they must be redressed. Without doing so, I am afraid that our nation will implode from within.
It is true that our sector, i.e., the funder community, has responded with alacrity and impressively to our current disruptions. Many foundations have made new funds available, many have made – at least temporary – changes in the way we do business, many have recognized anew that our missions cannot be fulfilled without profound trust in the nonprofits that implement our funding, and many have joined together in unprecedented collaborations and joint efforts. The scope of what needs to be done to respond and rebuild is massive and far beyond the capacity of our sector, but it is certainly true that we can stand tall in our response.
A larger and more long-term question has to do with sustainability: of the nonprofit world, of our altered tactics, and of the world as a whole. No serious person imagines that we will return to an unchanged world – but that doesn’t mean that our practices will or should change. Or if they should, in which ways? And who should decide?
For example, I would hope that no funder ignores the evident and demonstrable class and race chasm in the USA. But even if one recognizes that consideration of “DEI” needs to inform our grantmaking, there are various credible ways to do so: advocating public policy change, supporting intermediary organizations, funding local direct service entities, etc. I personally endorse certain practices and associate myself with the joint statement of 700 US foundations about utilization of our funds at this extraordinary time. Yet I continue to feel that, in the rush to provide resources where they are desperately needed – a flexibility that is indeed a crucial value-added of our field, we don’t surrender our other value-added asset – the ability to have strategies that take a thoughtful long view independent of contemporaneous political pressures. After all, as we look back to lesson #1, it is certain that the systemic societal inequities will outlast the pandemic and will demand every bit as much of our attention and funding. To do our work well, we need to combine both of those values – flexibility and perspective. [I will be offering a recorded webinar on this subject to be available for public viewing on Monday, 27 April.]
Lesson #2 – What Shouldn’t Change: The philanthropy field must continue to play its crucial role as a funder and thought leader. There may be exigencies that require short term funding adjustments, but our strategies should reflect longer term endorsement of our distinctive role. Hopefully, all of us have a strategy that allow both.
If it is true that our strategies should not be cavalierly disregarded as events unfold, it is also clear that it is time to underscore many of the best practices that have developed in our field. For many of us, as my clients and students know, these practices are well established; for many others, the emergence of the work of CEP, GEO, NCRP, and TBP are welcome correctives to deeply entrenched and often out of date practices.
To take just a few examples:
a. There needs to be an open and honest relationship with grantees and potential grantees. . We want to know what a grantee really needs to be successful, what is in the way of that happening, and what measures will truly show those things. And only funders can make that a safe place to be. Many funders are clueless about how the power imbalance, even when unintended, distorts that openness and gets in the way of an honest dialogue.
b. There needs to be a simplifying of what we ask of applicants for our funds. In teaching this over the years, I have learned that most funders want to ask as much as possible but only use a small portion of that information to make a decision. Why impose that extra work on the applicants, and ourselves, if it doesn’t really inform our decision?
c. Most grantees would benefit from unrestricted grants and most projects need more than one year to implement. There are important exceptions to both, to be sure, but our norm should be that, if we trust a grantee sufficiently to invest our money, we should give them the greatest chance to utilize their expertise.
d. We need to assure that our grantmaking enhances the professionalization of any program or organization we fund and not inadvertently reinforce the shameful pattern of undercapitalizing the sector we presumably believe in.
e. There needs to be proportionality of what we ask and require of our grantees, reflecting the size of our grants, and the capacity of the grantee. It may seem equal to ask every grantee for a quarterly report, but not equitable if one of those grantees is a 3-person neighborhood-based startup and another a well-established research university.
Lesson #3 – What Should Change: Best practices in the funder world have made major progress toward more open, honest, streamlined, and constructive relationships between funders and grantees. This doesn’t render strategy irrelevant, only that this way of thinking and behaving is likely to achieve a funder’s desire strategy in a more effective and less burdensome manner.
As we are now thinking through what will emerge, it is crucial for our field to take the lessons of these weeks and apply them to what will become normal and normative. Our work won’t end when the doors are open again but will call for us to play even more crucial roles during the forthcoming weeks and months – to do what we can and should do best.
#370 – A Plea to Fellow Funders: Let’s keep our faces masked, but we must not seal our lips nor hold our tongues. – 10 April 2020
April 16th, 2020
This was to have been posted on 10 April. For technical reasons, it appears that it wasn’t distributed. I am pleased that I have subsequently seen posts by numerous others in our field taking very similar positions. Readers may also wish to look at previous posts on various responses to COVID-19.
“With Passover beginning this evening, Easter this Sunday, and Ramadan not far away, this is a Holy time for those of us in the Abrahamic traditions. What is there to say that doesn’t sound trite or obvious? None of these thoughts is unique or mine alone, but they are what I am thinking about at this time:
“We know that virtually the entire world is experiencing a transforming moment – and in front of our eyes. Religious Traditions teach us that, at the most perilous times, hope must counterbalance fear. It must inform what we become when this is over.
“I have real fear that some will learn the wrong lessons and look to place blame on ethnic or racial or religious groupings. I have real fear that civil liberties and civil society, constitutional rights are being snatched away. I have real fear that basic human trust in essential human institutions will take a long time to rebuild.
“But I am also hopeful that ALL will see that we can influence climate by our behaviors, that we are all interconnected and that artificial borders and boundaries cannot protect us and must not isolate us politically, that health care systems that favor the affluent not only don’t work but are inherently unjust, that a society that eschews a guaranteed nonporous safety net will spend untold trillions to create what should always have been there in the first place, that an educational system that mocks science abets needless death, that the fragile strands of human connection can never be taken for granted. Much of that is in our hands, and, at some point we will venture forth from our hibernation to create a new normal. Let’s hope it is a normal built on the best of who we can be…. Happy Holidays.” [Posted on my Facebook page on 8 April 2020]
As COVID-19 continues to dominate all of our lives, the philanthropy/foundation community has stepped up, adjusted our practices, increased our funding, and, on the whole, responded with a speed and agility that we are not known for. I applaud the well-conceived statement by 9 leading national Philanthropy Service Organizations that was issued last week, putting a sector-stake in the ground affirming that these changes must be our current “normal” and must be viewed as mainstream.
The Institute for Wise Philanthropy, which I co-founded 18 years ago, is a different kind of PSO. Our exclusive role is to teach and advise those in the funding community – and we are proud that we have done so for so many funders both in the USA and in many other countries. While we, personally, have very strong commitments and clear funding priorities, as educators our job is to help other funders make wise, informed, ethical, and appropriate decisions – for themselves. Our strategies and our curricula are content agnostic. [I suspect that many who have participated in our sponsored seminars and workshops, or took the courses for funders at NYU and Penn over the last 20 years don’t find it hard to infer my political leanings, but the underlying messages and methodology are applicable across the political spectrum.]
We have always urged funders to take our advocacy role seriously. Especially as funders begin to understand the systemic causes of many of the conditions we attempt to ameliorate or address, the indispensability of government becomes clear. Political inclinations may lead to differing opinions about what or how extensive that role should be, it is inconceivable to resolve large systemic issues without a multi-sector approach. Policy – and funding – always matter. And the sheer scope of funding that can come from public funding will always dwarf that of private philanthropy.[There are still some funders who shy away from public policy advocacy on the incorrect assumption that it isn’t allowed by US law. This is not the place to go into detail on this question but suffice it to say that there is a difference between advocacy and lobbying. The latter is indeed problematic for private foundations, but less so for public charities. Advocacy, in broad strokes, is always allowed.]
This post is to push our field to raise a voice not just for how we develop appropriate funding roles with our grantees – as crucial as that is. And it is not just to advocate for the continuation of tax deductibility within our tax system – as valid as that is. And it certainly not to downplay the importance our advocacy to include the nonprofit sector in any and all bail-out packages. Those voices are essential, and effective, and affirm that we can and must play crucial roles in guaranteeing the stability and accomplishments of this large sector.
But this post is to plead with my colleagues to begin a more systematic and concerted push for a broader advocacy – and that is to make sure that our constitutional democracy prevails at a time when it is under attack. There are challenges to rights to vote. There are challenges to the rights of habeas corpus. There are challenges to an independent judiciary. There are challenges to the role and rights of a free press. There are challenges to equitable representation. There are challenges to ensure clean water and a reliable food supply. There are challenges to provide education – real education – to all. There are challenges to guarantee safety, security, and opportunity for all regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, gender identification, or age.
There are NOT partisan issues even if some would make them so. They are what defines a constitutional democracy. There may be room for how one implements them but none who take our constitution seriously would or should argue that they are essential.
The problem is that they are all under attack. And not in small ways. Others have written in great detail about every one of the above listed challenges, many with great sophistication. Writ large, they represent the greatest challenge to the continuity of the American system than we have seen since the McCarthy era.
This is not a challenge for philanthropy alone. These issues should be outspoken and forceful concerns for all. But this is a time when philanthropy’s independence and unique role provide a mandate for us to take the lead. Fortunately, the philanthropy world developed a paradigm for how to approach a large national issue of justice and equity in a coordinated way – Census2020. [I have been a bit player in the local WRAG committee] It is one of the first times when our field chose to coordinate a major public policy initiative on a matter that does not directly impact our own interests – although, of course, it impacts us and all Americans in long term and crucial ways.
Even in Census2020, when all we chose to do was to try to guarantee a complete and fair count of our population in accord with a Constitutional mandate, there were those who did whatever they could to present this advocacy as partisan. Fortunately, our field refused to take the bait and shrink from our responsibilities. So too, in this realm of sustaining civil liberties, assuring the right to vote, and much more, all guaranteed as essential elements of what it means to live in a Constitutional democracy, we must resist the challenges that some would make to philanthropy’s voices – accusing our interests as “partisan.” Affirming loudly, persistently, forcefully that there are rights that enable us to function, that guarantee a separation of powers, and that enable us to begin to redress systemic inequities [which have been so evident during this pandemic but hardly unique to it] must become our mandate during this time. We must resist those who, hiding behind the abnormality of the pandemic, attempt to seize unauthorized powers, and deny rights.
It has become a cliché to say that the world is being changed and challenged as never before. And that what will emerge will be a different world.
We all of us, but especially those of us in the funder world, must do all in our power to assure that the world that emerges is one that assures that the rights that should apply to all are assured. It will require that our eyes to be watchful of those who would deny those rights, and for our voices for freedom never to be muffled by the masks on our faces.
March 31st, 2020
Addendum: Not so surprisingly, just hours after this was first published, I began reading of webinars addressing the particular challenges facing arts and culture institutions. More to the point, I also saw certain politicians staking out the position that it is inappropriate for bail-out government funds to be available to this sub-sector. Hopefully this post will help articulate some of the dialectic regarding this realm.
In this post, I return to philanthropy-practitioner questions and practices – this time for those who fund in the Arts and Culture realm. As of this writing, I have not yet seen any larger discussion of this issue, although I anticipate that we will in the coming days and weeks. I welcome thoughts and reactions.
The question has been raised if it is legitimate or even ethical to continue funding in this area in the face of the overwhelming human urgency of COVID-19. COVID-19 is about life and death; arts and culture are about quality of life. What is a funder to think given that stark a comparison?
Similar questions have been raised in the past – during recessions, natural disasters, human caused disasters. “Compassion funding” – the very human and humane responses that we all feel at these times seems to weigh heavily toward an argument for a suspension of “quality of life” causes when so many are struggling with basic needs. Let’s get these people healthy or back on their feet and then we can get back to these “extras”.
That argument, though, is rebuttable. Even if one believes that the urgency of the moment outweighs the long term, it may be a short-sighted decision to discontinue all funding to this sub-sector. At the end of this thing, whenever it will be, we will need to re-engage and rebuild those organizations that add to the nature of what it means to be human, or perhaps better said: art and culture are not “additions” but essential.. Are we better off with shuttered centers and bankrupt organizations that would need to be created anew?
If history is any indication, the answer is that we should do what we can to sustain this sector, in some way, since gearing back up is much easier than starting back up.
The next question is: which ones? Is it more important to guarantee that the largest, wealthiest, most prestigious ones are kept whole since they serve the largest portion of the population on a regular basis? Or conversely, can we assume that those are also the organizations that do and will receive money from the deepest pocketed donors, governments, and endowments, so we should focus on the smaller entities that perennially exist on a more fragile financial base?
Part of the answer has to do with one’s funding style and priorities. For a “place-based” funder – that is, a funder whose giving priorities are primarily connected to a particular city or region, sustaining local institutions with which they have had meaningful relationships over time may be the most appropriate and compelling approach. One’s funding at this time may not be sufficient to keep the organization whole, but it may be enough to keep it alive. That support should involve cash, of course, but it may also include contracting for expertise in helping all regional nonprofits during times of enforced transition. A singe consultant may well serve to advise an entire cadre of at-risk institutions.
We know from past crises that there will be both consolidations and fall out. And there will be time for that down the road. But forcing those kinds of hard and strategic choices in a time of crisis is exactly the wrong time to force existential decisions. That is especially true in this particular time of COVID-19 when no one can know what kinds of earned revenue will be possible or when physical spaces will be open again. And no one can fully know what kind of economic downturn has begun.
The issue is more complex for the larger legacy institutions. Most of us were aghast to read that the Washington based NSO laid off its entire orchestra the same day it received a guarantee of an infusion from bailout funds. It creates a conceptual dilemma for funders: If we believe that those legacy institutions are national treasures that deserve taxpayer support, then we might argue that private philanthropy should be reserved for those institutions that don’t receive that support. But here, even with taxpayer funding, the leadership acted in what appear to be self-destructive ways, or at least, with severe myopia. Whatever the correct longer-term answer, it is certainly true that modest pocketed funders will not be able to make up the difference for those large legacy institutions. Better to leave their philanthropy to places where their funding will make a/the difference.
It has become fairly much the norm in the last two weeks for funders to agree to remove restrictions from existing funding, simplify their application and decision processes, speed up their payment of grants, and dig deeper into reserves. All of this applies to arts and culture funding as well – but with one additional caveat: funding should be built around the commitment by the recipient boards to keep their organizations alive – even if not whole -until, as we suggest above, the time is right to take the hard look at what we need to do to keep a robust arts and culture community functioning well into the future.
There will be very, very hard decisions ahead about which groups and institutions survive, consolidate, merge, or, sadly, close. But the option should never be to surrender our commitment to the quality of human experience as provided by the “arts and culture” sector. History has taught us no less.